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Metagame Mechanics: Marked for Death

Metagame Mechanics: Marked for Death

The Knight of the Sun by Arthur HughesI love when characters die.

Lucky died above the body of his wounded comrade, having spent his last cure spell on a friend instead of himself. Barrin was the last dwarf standing in the final confrontation against Gordon Beast, and with the battle won, his rage subsided and so did he. Jack was drawn and quartered when the party failed to rescue him. Shoudra died in Zeke’s arms with only 10 rounds to say goodbye before the poison finished her.

Yet not all deaths are so noble. Some paladin fell off the boat and drowned in the river. That dwarf wizard was critted by a gnoll in the second round of his adventuring career. A bard was ripped in two by a troll. These all added to the grittiness of our adventure, but it leaves a sour taste to see a character dropped from main protagonist to red shirt for such a minor encounter.

And not everyone shares my thirst for noble sacrifice. Most players are reluctant to part with the characters into which they have put so much time and passion. And no players really enjoy seeing a character die for no good reason; at best, they’re good sports about it.

Marked for Death is a metagame mechanic that leads a character toward a premeditated, meaningful character death.


Through private mutual agreement between PC and GM, a character can be labeled “Marked for Death.” When Marked for Death, the character has two sessions where he is immune to death. The GM is explicitly permitted to advise, fudge, or outright lie to preserve the character’s life for these two sessions.

After two sessions, the GM must kill the character in a way that advances the plot. The GM is explicitly permitted to fudge or lie to guarantee that character’s demise. When the death is at hand, the character should be offered a moment to share their final words.

The purpose of the two-session wait is threefold. First, it gives the character a chance to resolve their subplots and finally kiss the girl, tell off the father, or betray the party. Second, it gives time for the creation of a new character and to perhaps plant the seeds of their inclusion into the party. Third, and most importantly, it gives the GM time to figure out how to kill off the character in a meaningful way without derailing the current campaign arc.

The “final words” clause gives the player something to prepare for and a last chance to bring closure to his or her story. This could be a simple one-liner, a tear-jerking speech, or a last recording found in the character’s bunk.

Here are just a few of the potent ways that a storyline can use a Marked for Death character:

  • A last stand against insurmountable odds that allows the party to get away.
  • Getting gunned down by a rival crime family, thus cementing the turf war and driving your brothers to vengeance.
  • Honorably answering a villain’s call to single combat… only to lose.
  • Ascending into a higher dimension so that your powers can keep a world-devouring entity in check for another thousand years.
  • Flying your damaged fighter into the power core of the enemy mothership.
  • Succumbing to the disease at last; whispering your secret with your final breath.
  • Taking the bullet meant for him.
  • Committing seppuku to avoid staining your honor after defying the emperor’s order to protect your friends.
  • Betraying one’s fellow adventurers in an attempt to claim the ultimate treasure, only to fall victim to the ultimate deathtrap—a poetic end for a weasel like you.
  • Beating impossible odds to protect the one you love, dying with a smile on your face, and telling her “it’s up to you now, kid.”
  • Triple-crossing the bad guy (to your detriment).
  • Walking proudly to your execution while disguised as someone else.
  • Crash landing the party’s ship onto the planet that will serve as the stage for the final battle.
  • Getting captured during an essential scouting mission and succumbing to unspeakable torture that ultimately reveals your team’s flawless strategy.
  • Repairing the reactor amid fatal radiation.
  • Losing Russian roulette to show just how gritty and existential the game setting can be.
  • Completing the ritual of lichdom and becoming the main villain at last.

4 thoughts on “Metagame Mechanics: Marked for Death”

  1. That’s a great idea. I’ve been using the “meaningful death rule” (a PC can’t be killed by a “non-boss” monster, but may be disfigured, their campaign can suffer a setback, something terrible can happen to someone they care about, etc.) when players aren’t ready to part with their characters. But I’ll certainly add this to the list of options that I present to a player when, by all rights, they should be dead.

  2. Excellent article! (Can we get a tag for similar ones?)
    As a GM, a main character’s death this is a situation that rarely happens, however when it does, it’s very important both for the player and the story. Reading this article offers a set of useful opportunities and options that will make such a situation different from a single lucky crit roll.
    Giving a character two sessions in advance to prepare strikes me as the thing to do (story wise), and the immunity proposed makes it more daring and allows bigger chances to be played.
    Definetely, something I’m going to implement (although attemp to avoid).

  3. Plober, the easiest way to see all similar articles is to click on the author name link. You’ll see everything he’s written for the Kobold Press blog.

    And yeah, I’ve gotten a heads up from a player once or twice that they wanted to close out a character. A little advance warning works well in that case, too.

  4. There’s another angle to consider with this rule: closing out a character when the dying character’s player doesn’t give a hoot, but the rest of the party cares deeply about the lost party member.

    My PFRPG adventure path group recently had to expel a player because she consistently (four times in a row) pitched the group a character design that the group approved, then played the character in a manner incompatible with the design and the campaign setting. Each time that the group confronted her about her bad behaviour, the player asked me to just ‘kill her character off’ so that she could ‘try again.’

    Each time we transitioned the player, I (as GM) implemented a version of the Marked For Death system: I insisted that each PC’s death had to further the plot in a suitably dramatic fashion. It worked … the other characters were (to various degrees) haunted by the loss of a valued teammate, and that changed their fighting style in future encounters.

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